Published by Puffin on 4th February 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction, YA
It's early 1945 and a group of people trek across Germany, bound together by their desperation to reach the ship that can take them away from the war-ravaged land. Four young people, each haunted by their own dark secret, narrate their unforgettable stories.
The wartime sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff is the worst disaster in maritime history, and yet its story is largely overlooked. It was a German ship packed with refugees which was torpedoed by a Russian submarine during World War 2, resulting in the loss of over 9000 lives, of which an estimated 5000 were children. Ruta Sepetys has thoroughly researched the tragedy, and combines fact with fiction in this stunning, heartbreaking novel.
Salt To The Sea is told from the perspectives of four young people, each with their own story, secrets and hopes of freedom. Through these short chapters a larger story is told – the story of refugees flocking to the coast of Prussia, fleeing the advancing Red Army, hoping to eventually find passage across the Baltic Sea to relative safety.
The paths of our four young people slowly converge. A Prussian whose backpack could seal his fate. A Polish girl trying to make her way undetected between the German and Russian armies. A Lithuanian nurse whose medical training proves vital. A German assigned to the Wilhelm Gustloff who dreams of being a Nazi hero.
There are other key characters in this book: an orphan boy, an elderly shoemaker and a blind lady who must hide her disability.
I honestly don’t know how to describe the impact of this book. I’m generally not one for crying while I read but this novel reduced me to tears. Knowing that this work of fiction is based around fact, that this overcrowded ship filled with refugees sank, that thousands of lives were lost and no-one talks about it. That alone is heartbreaking.
In her author’s note Sepetys writes “As I wrote this novel, I was haunted by thoughts of the helpless children and teenagers – innocent victims of border shifts, ethnic cleansings, and vengeful regimes.” So in writing this novel she is giving a voice to these young people and to those vulnerable people, the aged and disabled, who were caught up in a war that wasn’t their doing.
The four characters that Sepetys tells this story through are quite simply brilliant. She tells their stories and uncovers their secrets while capturing the fear, distrust, hopelessness and loneliness that their situations create. She also captures the mindset of a young, frightened boy, brainwashed into believing Hitler’s propaganda and desperately craving approval.
Sepetys paints honest, often distressing scenes within this novel. She does not shy away from the facts, or the realities of war. She truly captures the desperation of humans fighting for their lives.
However, she balances this with glimpses into normal life, scenes of compassion and love. You’ll smile and you’ll cry, and that’s one of the things that makes this book so special.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough. They story of the ten thousand refugees aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff is one that everyone should know. Sepetys makes these historical details accessible to a wide range of readers through her effortless combination of fact and fiction.
You need to read this book, but be sure you have a handkerchief to hand.